Protesting for Civil Rights in the U.S. and Northern Ireland:  A Personal Reminiscence

by Katherine Stuart van Wormer

Professor of Social Work

University of Northern Iowa

Cedar Falls, Iowa 50614-0405

In Proteus: A Journal of Ideas, March,1998,43-48.



The wolf shall dwell with the lamb ... and a little child shall lead them. Isaiah 11, 6


I am the only American to my knowledge to have participated in both the American and the Irish civil rights movements.  Each experience was at once precious and disturbing; in each there was a terrific sense of history in the making but to what extent I never could have imagined.


                                                                Chapel Hill, 1963

           I am 19 years old; it is a beautiful fall day.  My younger sister, Flora, and I are climbing a hill toward the UNC (University of North Carolina) campus.  In the distance, we hear the beautiful soft voices of a chorus of  black teen-aged girls. Huddled in a corner, they are singing for freedom, rights, integration.  As we approach, the moment is holy, spiritual, almost intrusive.  "Let's go join them," Flora says.   I feel embarrassed, for us, for the girls, and rush both of us on.

           At the Presbyterian youth group that week we have a renowned black speaker from Atlanta.  He is introduced as a leader with Dr. Martin Luther King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  Years later I will wonder if it was Reverend Ralph Abernathy.  In any case, he has a charisma about him combined with a tone of accusation that is unsettling:  "Why don't the white churches get out there and support the cause along with the Negro churches? Protesting, on the streets -- that's where Christians should be... And why can't white southerners pronounce the word Negro -- they say it like Nigra?"  Later I am so guilt ridden that I walk over to him and feebly try to explain that southerners say winda for window, and that this is just a part of the accent.  No one looks convinced.  I was brought up to say colored anyway and the more cumbersome word, Negro, grates on the ear.           

All week long I feel a collective sense of shame well up within me.  Part of me wants to defend my slave-owning ancestors -- they were good and kind people; they wrote poetry; the slaves were  so loyal, after all, they hated to leave after emancipation and settled nearby.  And my city of New Orleans -- wasn't it one of the most integrated in the world, a blending of color and speech patterns if not of class?  And didn't our maids -- Tine and Lula and Elma -- love us as we did them?

          It is Saturday around noon and the whole town is gathered on Franklin St., Chapel Hill.  Everyone awaits the parade; traffic is stopped.  And now the marchers are coming from the direction of Carrboro -- black children and students mostly,  marching slowly in pairs, with solemn looking whites of all ages scattered among them.  Yankees, I figure.  Yes, the whole town is out, and police are everywhere, patrolling the streets and the people.  TV cameras are from national crews.  How easy it would be to just slip in among the marchers; like a Mardi Gras parade, almost.  So without any forethought, Flora and I simply join in, as if compelled; we will be on the sidelines no more.  Now we are among those marching, against segregation, against our past.  And there is our worried-sick mother watching from a parked car half a block away.  And here are Flora's teachers, smiling, clearly admiring us, the academic liberals on one side of the street, the university side, the poor white trash elements standing with cattle prods on the other.  (In this college town, the town-gown rift is pronounced.)

          Onlooker John Ehle (1965:48) records his impressions of one of the Saturday marches; this one involved 350 citizens of the town, a fully integrated group:

I watched that parade that day, as did everybody else, it seemed, in Chapel Hill.  It was a festive occasion; it was a deeply serious effort which had been decked out with color and had a victorious sound to it.  I remember feeling at that time, as hundreds of singing people walked by, that they would surely win, that in a democratic society one can’t very often stop people who have the dedication they were showing.

            Where we are going we do not know.  Movement leaders wearing arm bands patrol us.  We pause to take an oath of non-retaliation raising our right hands.  "And if attacked I will not retaliate."  Soon we find ourselves across the railroad tracks, in Carrboro in a black Baptist church.  Black young people lead us in songs; such beautiful harmonizing I have never heard before:  "We are soldiers in the army";  "Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on";  "I'm walking with my mind stayed on freedom, Alleluia."  Lots of clapping, swaying.

          Now a young white student, John Dunne, addresses the crowd.  He is the charismatic leader.  From near Dayton, Ohio, an English major, I later read in the campus newspaper.  I recognize him, in fact, from when he earlier spoke at our church for peace and nuclear disarmament.  Persons who have been arrested and spent time in the jail, veterans of the movement, are honored on the platform behind him.  One young junior high school student has been arrested 20 times.

          We will not return to a certain segregated  motel, we are told.  The risk of violence is too great.  "Lou, tell the people what happened to you," John says chuckling.  Lou Calhoun, being light skinned, turns crimson with embarrassment.  "A woman sat on his head and urinated on him," someone calls out.  A chorus of giggling breaks out at the shocking disclosure.  This happened last week.  Eventually after days of newspaper headlines the motel will be closed down.  The strategy is this:  a barrage of bad publicity for every segregated motel, bar, and restaurant.  Customers stay away and the place has to be closed.

           Volunteers are summoned to picket a bar on Franklin Street.  "We can drive these places out of business," John says.  I raise my hand to volunteer.  "Chapel Hill is 95% integrated," he continues.  "We will make it 100% integrated, the most integrated town in the South!"  A list of names of segregated bars and motels is reeled off.  Sure enough, in time, they are mostly either integrated or they go out of business.

          Saturdays are filled with excitement:  marching, singing, civil disobedience.  Buttons saying C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality) are passed out.  Urgent strategy meetings and frantic phone calls to the National Director of C.O.R.E., James Farmer, steer the way.  Floyd McKissick of Durham is the legal adviser.  Sit-downs, lie-ins, blocking traffic.  Some people get a little crazy -- throwing themselves out in front of moving cars.  White paddy wagons, bought by the police for this purpose, cart dozens of singing protesters away.  An older white man  seems a little too emotional, a little too carried away.  From the newspapers I learn that he, Pat Cusick,  was once  in the Ku Klux Klan, then did an about-face and joined "the cause."  He has chalked up multiple arrests.  Whether he is an extremist by nature or just saw the light like Paul in the Bible doesn't matter.  The cause is right.  We have the acclaim of the nation, the world.

A highlight at one of the Baptist church rallies is James Farmer’s much anticipated speech to the protesters. His every sentence interjected with wild applause, Farmer describes the Chapel Hill activism as pivotal to the cause.  Ehle (1965) writes of this event as follows:

This is a revolution, Mr. Farmer told them, the revolution of the 1960's which seeks to include America’s dark citizens in the American success and to fulfill the promise of the American Constitution.  He also told the assembly that they were helping pass the Civil Rights Bill in the Federal Congress.  This was greeted with prolonged applause.  “They needn’t think we’ve stopped caring,” Farmer said.  “We must continue.”

When I go back to the Presbyterian church I feel estranged, different somehow.  The young people with  their  sorority and  fraternity  connections  now seem superficial,  shallow.  While my thoughts are on justice and injustice, theirs seemingly are on rush week, parties, and pledges.  The words of Martin Luther King and Gandhi echo in my head:  "In an unjust society the only place for a good man is in jail".  And, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."  And, "A single light dispels darkness."  And here is my favorite: "The highest form of obedience to the law is disobedience to the law and willingness to take the consequences."  (See Gandhi, 1982 and King, 1968).

          I am never the same following that first day on the march.  And my sister is never the same either.  We have experienced social change in the making and, for one sparkling moment forever emblazoned in memory, freed ourselves from the chains of our ancestors.

          My plan is to get arrested, my dream to sit up on the platform at the rallies like those others.  That would be true expiation for the sins of our southern planter heritage.  But I am ambivalent, questioning my motives: am I simply rebelling from the past?  I will wait and think it out.  The image of my worried, overprotective mother, begging me not to do anything foolish, not to get carried away, is daunting.  Years later my inhibitions and self-questioning, not my actions,  will be my only regrets.

          At the Saturday rally we are divided into three groups.  In the first one , arrest is certain.  The second one, arrest is possible, and the third one is simply to stand on the sidelines and sing.  Flora and I join the second group.  Then fate can take over, I think.  Then I can tell my mother I didn't mean to get arrested.

          Sadly we never do get our wish, never get to be anointed with arrest.  The Chapel Hill police are fair, well disciplined, educated.  Always a warning first, then an arrest.  The police even lead the parade, blocking off the streets from traffic giving us the run of Franklin Street.  National television crews cover the demonstration, and the local newspaper reporters snap pictures left and right.  The only positive press coverage occurs in The Daily Tar Heel, the campus paper.  (Later the editor is hauled in court along with the protesters.)  Flora and I live for Saturdays,  every week a march with slogans, banners,  and the whole town is out to watch us.  "Nigger lover" we hear as we pass the shops.  One day a mean white woman puts a cattle prod on a young black student, my partner in the march.  And as we have been trained, she just stands there stoically.  We all stand beside her as still as stones. "Put in on her, put it on her," the red neck mother then tells her young son.   And he does.  Another time, a little black boy refuses to hold my hand as we are being partnered.  "What's it to you, boy?" his sister snaps at him.  He agrees to hold my hand,  but my day is ruined.  This is a  harbinger of the day SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) will kick all the whites out of the organization.  But for now, in 1963, we are integrated, integrated for peace and freedom.  The images will last forever:  The singing, holding hands -- "black and white together." And over and over, echoing the words of our faith, our idealism, we sing,

 "We shall overcome. Deep in my heart  I do believe.  We shall overcome someday."

          And we do.  Soon the Civil Rights Movement has come and gone, the federal government and the white southern attitudes will never be quite the same again.  Forced to live as equals, drink from the same water fountain,  you become equals.  True, my  grandfather did argue separate but equal to his dying day:  Martin Luther King’s intelligence, he reasoned, stemmed from his white blood, the blood of his slave owner ancestors.  But my grandfather's generation of old southern  paternalists -- persons who loved "colored" people but only as their inferiors --were already relics of the past long before they died off.

          When the marches stop, there is a sense of emptiness and loss.  The streets look so dead on Saturdays.  The best show that Chapel Hill has ever seen, will ever know, is over.  In the aftermath of the protests all who had been arrested for obstructing the peace, 200 in all, are put on trial.  The trials take place in a rural area, Hillsboro, before a notoriously racist judge.  As most defendants plead no contest to the charges, in the true Gandhian spirit, they willingly stand before the judge to accept the consequences.  The maximum sentences are handed out!   John Dunne and Pat Cusick are sentenced to 3 years and 1 year of hard labor, respectively.  Quinton Baker, a dynamic black leader, is given six months.   Two professors are given 90 days.  Sum total, thirteen protesters receive active jail or road gang sentences (Ehle, 1965).  All the others were sentenced to probation.  I am too upset to attend the trials, disillusioned at the level of justice and guilt-ridden at not having done more to get arrested.  My mother, to my surprise, does attend and reports each day’s events. The press,  which  is highly conservative, reports almost nothing of the harsh penalties.

          Later I learn that UNC faculty and graduate students involved in the marches lost their jobs and assistantships whereas those from Duke University did not.  At the time all the protesters are spurned, regarded as extremists who now have to pay the price for their actions.  Yet these same individuals today, no doubt, take tremendous pride in whatever sacrifice they made for the cause of Civil Rights.  As is true of other historic revolutions, the troublemakers of yesterday are the heroes of today. 

John Ehle (1965:329), an eyewitness and journalist, attributed a major strength of the civil rights movement to its all-abiding  religious aspect:

The Chapel Hill story might help in the study of other neutral matters ...  The freedom songs of the movement are essentially spirituals; the emotion-filled talks to demonstrators are sermons; the meeting places usually are church buildings; the moral values of the movement are essentially the moral values of the church.  All of this combines to give the civil rights movement a foundation.


                                                      Northern Ireland, 1967-1969

          I do not go to Northern Ireland for purposes of finding another cause but, rather, to leave a country out of longing for peace.  When I graduate in 1966,  the war in Vietnam is,  believe it or not, still fairly popular. "Love it or leave it," people's bumper stickers say.  Maybe I will, I think.  Men of draft age are flocking to the battlefield or to prison or to Canada.  I will do better, I will go abroad.  With this resolution,  I step out of the frying pan into the fire.

          As a graduate student, studying English education at Queen's University, Belfast, I throw myself into my studies.   Never have I had such wonderful friends.  My friends don't like Americans, but I am different they say, not loud like the others.  No need to be a TCC (Typical Carolina Coed) here.  I can be accepted for myself.  I feel accepted and strangely at home.

          No wonder.  Because this is the Deep South all over again.  Segregation and race hatred.  My southern white guilt is now replaced by Protestant guilt.  I become a Quaker -- here is a group apart, people who care and who protest for peace.  Talk is of Vietnam, but there is this Protestant-Catholic thing looming over us. What people call race is religion, ethnicity. Why can't the schools be integrated, I think?  When I ask politicians and priests I am told, "No this is impossible.  We don't want it, and they don't want it."   A united Ireland would perhaps be best.  There are few religious animosities in the South.  Most Catholics agree; the Protestants will not hear of it.  I learn to shut up

on this issue altogether.

After some unpleasantness I learn to keep quiet also about the high Catholic unemployment rate, Protestants insisting on even singing the words to “God Save the Queen,” the distinctly Protestant names such as Smith and Jones and Stuart (my name), and the nearly 100% school segregation: Protestants go to Orangefield and Blythefield and Catholics to St. Patrick’s and St. Louis, the fact that Catholics live on streets like Falls Road, and the Protestants in the Shankill area and on Malone Road.  All of these:  taboo topics for polite conversation.

         Following graduation, I teach at a girls' convent school in Ballymena.  So here I am,  almost cloistered, a temporary lay teacher at a convent among fully habited nuns.  I am in seventh heaven.  The girls are sweet; the teachers unbelievably strict but kind.  The nuns are young and beautiful, and they can never go home.  Only for funerals, they tell me.  I become  a celebrity of sorts at school and for awhile am the center of much sympathy .  The government is threatening to deport me as an illegal immigrant.  It seems that my B.A. degree from the University of North Carolina is not acceptable, not on a British list of approved degrees.  My case is taken up in the local Parliament. TV cameras arrive at school and the children are thrilled, but the no-nonsense headmistress, Sister Mary,  will not allow the cameras in the classroom.  Nevertheless, thanks to the press, and political support, I win my case and am declared a qualified teacher after all. I love teaching and children.  My faith in justice is restored.

          Politically, it is the next school year that is eventful, historic: 1968-1969.  It is a year of young against old, Catholic against Protestant, patriot against rebel.  The sectarian divide intensifies  as  the protest movement which I had been anticipating for two years takes the entire country of one and a half million people by storm.  In his moving chronicle, Children of “The Troubles,” Holliday (1997:3) provides a recent account of the circumstances surrounding these events:

Gerrymandering and oppressive voting regulations in Northern Ireland gave the Protestants nearly complete control of local and national government, including the police force of the country, the Royal Ulster Constabulary.  Public housing was unfairly allocated, and Protestants were encouraged to hire only Protestants. 

Under the charismatic leadership of Bernadette Devlin (whom I know vaguely from Queen's University) and other activists from the Young Labour Party,  the whole system is under siege.  News reports are of nothing else.  Police beatings of peaceful protesters make headlines around the world.  In no time at all here I am on the streets marching.  Marching for the rights of Catholics, the poor and persecuted of Northern Ireland.  The oratory of the young leaders is infectious; their pleas for civil and legal rights irresistible.  I read excitedly of these students from Queen’s, inspired by Martin Luther King and anti-Vietnam protests, leading a processions of thousands through the city streets throughout the north of Ireland.

      I am proud to have  a regular job now, teaching English at a Protestant secondary modern school in Portadown.  In the staff room, male teachers sit on the left side,  the women on the right, with a high-voiced man marking the dividing line between them.  Most topics of conversation pertain to the glories of the past.  Gradually,  I learn I am in the most ferociously Protestant territory in the country, the bastion of right wing conservatism.  This is Paisleyite country, named for followers of the fanatical Reverend Ian Paisley.  I have heard his uproarious street sermons about  the evils of Romanism before.

          "These university students who are marching should be publicly flogged."  This is a staffroom remark by one of the teachers, Mr. Watson.  He and others on the staff are desperately afraid of losing their ties to Britain; they want to flush out all traitors with Republican sympathies.  Some of the staff comments are straight out of Adorno's F scale (a scale that measures Fascist and authoritarian tendencies; see Adorno, 1950).

          Mass parades and rallies are held on various evenings in small towns throughout the north of Ireland.  I go to the protests in Newry, a border town south of Portadown, accessible by train. (Portadown has been declared off-limits by Civil Rights leaders.)  On all the shops, the windows are boarded up as before a hurricane.  Thousands and thousands of people have come.   "We are the niggers of Ireland," Bernadette Devlin harangues the crowd.  Although she is only 19 years old, her oratory and absolute belief in the cause are infectious.  Members of the R.U.C. (Royal Ulster Constabulary) pass by in their handsome dark green uniforms.  "Sieg heil, sieg heil,"  chants the crowd.  They salute the police Nazi-style.  I am horrified.  Where is the spirit of brotherly love?  Where is the discipline?

          “One man, one vote” say the signs.  The familiar songs ring out.  "We Shall Not be Moved" and "We Shall Overcome" are the clear favorites.  But compared to America's seasoned singers, we sound dull and out of tune.  There has been no rehearsing, and few know the words to the songs, no training in nonviolent direct action either.

          In the evening outsiders -- young thugs -- come in and attack the police vans.  Curiously, the police, under orders, just stand by while the hoodlums rock the vans back and forth and then set them

on fire.  Predictably the next day's headlines are devastating:  "Riot Breaks Out during Civil Rights Protest".

         My closest friend, an R.U.C. policewoman, later warns me that the IRA is infiltrating the protest movement.  "Ha, ha, I've heard this before," I think.  At home the demonstrators were called Communist sympathizers.  Still I wonder about the outside elements here.  The leaders are non-violent, but speak with great anger.  There is no talk of love or peace, no oath of nonviolence before the march.  Among participants there lingers the suspicion that the police set up that situation to destroy the effectiveness of the protest.

          Nevertheless, I will continue to be involved.  The cause is just.  And the more I hear the prejudiced talk in the staffroom the more I want to disassociate myself from it.  Besides, the world is watching, and who knows where it will all end?  "One man, one vote" is our slogan,  the same one used a few years earlier in the Deep South.  Again there is victory of sorts.  Despite great Protestant defensiveness and resistance, Catholics do finally win their full voting rights, thanks to pressure from abroad and London.

          At school  my life is bedlam. The parents already hate me because I keep putting their misbehaving children in detention (which is inconvenient), rather than cane them which is accepted practice.  One boy's mother comes up to “pull my hair out.”   Fortunately, I have already left for home.  When Mr. Watson tells the children I am out there marching with  the Fenians, the news spreads like wildfire.   The parents let the children know I am not to be respected.  Paper airplanes are flying at me all the class period, and if I look in one direction a pencil flies at me in another.  The "pupils" hoot at my foreign words -- eraser for rubber, pen for biro, for example -- and refuse to shut up or stay in their seats.  "Are you a Fenian, Miss?" the big boys ask.  Forever the rebel, I refuse to

tell my religion.  Their taunts will be forever with me: "Why don't you use a cane? Are you a real teacher? "  ... "Do you know what we did this weekend, Miss? We beat up a Fenian."

          Whereas the big teenagers seem more victimizers than victims, the small children have not yet had their innocence corrupted.  Their constant companion is fear, fear of those --  bullies and adults -- who constantly pounce on them. I complain to the teachers  and friendly staff members about the brutality.  "The Christian Brothers are worse," the teachers tell me.  Besides, the children are beaten at home, and this is the only thing they understand.  (For my theory relating child abuse to the Troubles of Ireland see van Wormer, 1997:509).  Then one day the inevitable happens: the violence gets out of hand.  A child ("subnormal" or retarded) is taken to the hospital after Mr. Watson busts her eardrum.  I ache to go to the news reporters but know as an American my views are discounted.  I am an outside agitator, and everyone knows American children are spoiled. 

          The big children write the name Paisley all over the blackboard and the desks.  "We will throw you in the river," they say.  In the turmoil that is my classroom, I barely notice the piles of classroom books getting smaller and smaller.  In the end, this is my undoing, the proof of my irresponsibility.  At inventory time, the tyrannical principal who has taken to watching my unruly classroom with dismay through a peephole in the door, has an excuse to fire me -- "I will give you 24 hours to return the missing books," he barks.  Teachers hear him shouting all the way down to the staffroom.  It is summer by now, and I am more than ready to go home.  Besides, my mother assures me, things are much better in the U.S. now; the war in Vietnam is no longer popular.  And the peace movement is really picking up.



         From the vantage point of hindsight, I can compare the two social movements:  The similarities clearly outweigh the differences.  The Irish strategies (sit-ins, occupying buildings, marching) and, of course, the songs were borrowed directly from events in Selma and Birmingham.  The police brutality in both cases was predictable, well publicized, and instrumental in influencing passions and arousing sympathy for the cause.  The mass  media attention  was vital to the mobilization of  supporters and  notification of  onlookers of coming events, often on very short notice.  Central to both mass movements was external political sanctioning which ultimately brought about the desired legal changes -- the federal government in the first instance, and Westminster in the second.   And now for the differences: within the ranks of the Catholic protesters, there was active representation of middle aged, middle class persons, persons with a stake in the system.  Students from Queen's University led the marches.  (According to Coogan [1996], those student leaders later turned out to be successful members of the professional class).

           Among the protestors in the southern U.S.,  however, with black professionals in fear of losing their jobs and many small business owners anxious over the expected social and economic changes that would accompany integration, the ranks were filled with youths and others who could afford to get arrested.  And above all, children.  In Northern Ireland, in contrast, I don't remember seeing children in the crowd.  I did see several teachers from the Catholic school in Ballymena I so loved.

          The incredible self discipline of the American Civil Rights struggle, reinforced by oaths and lengthy training sessions and overseen by representatives from the black churches, was not replicated in the Irish undertaking.  Accordingly, outside agitators ("hooligans") could use the occasion to stir up violence and attack the police.  None of the marchers interceded in the violence.  Many Irish protesters,  including Bernadette Devlin were later arrested for throwing rocks.  Of all the differences between the two events, the most significant is that the American Civil Rights movement was integrated at every level, especially during the final year when whites from the North joined in large numbers (very few southern whites did so).  Its Irish counterpart, however, never expected to draw any support outside of local Catholics.  Nor did they sing songs about togetherness -- Orange and Green.  Coogan (1996: 63) describes the movement as "a genuinely cross-party (and creed) mass movement."  Recently, however, attending a conference on world violence in Dublin, I heard one of the speakers say that only Catholics participated in the marches for civil rights.  I started to tell the speaker otherwise, but then realized I could think of no Protestant other than myself who joined in.  (Maybe I will send her this paper).

            Both social movements, in short, were about change, revolutionary change that was extremely threatening to the power structure; both sprang out of forces that were set in place centuries before, forces that had to do with economic exploitation and greed.  Idealistic young people, not yet made aware of the seeming futility of fighting the system and not yet worn down from the struggle, were at the forefront of both efforts.  Young, angry, and possessed with the dedication of true believers, they were able to galvanize the multitudes at the same time drawing world attention to their cause.

             Whether or not anything has been accomplished, history will decide.  Admittedly, racism still triumphs in the U.S. and sectarianism in Northern Ireland.  The evils of racial segregation -- the "colored only," "white only" signs that no man or woman who was born before the 1950s could not have been aware of are now history.  Who today could not travel to Louisiana or Mississippi and see the changes?  In Northern Ireland, also,  sweeping change, of one sort or another,  has taken place.  Due to forces unleashed by the civil rights movement -- the local government dissolved, the British military occupation, walls constructed to separate  Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods in Belfast, the sporadic I.R.A. and U.V.F. (Ulster Volunteer Force)  terrorism -- Catholic and Protestant seem no more united than before.  This whole period of social change starting with the activism of the late sixties, sadly, has become known to all commentators as the Troubles.  A few schools have been integrated on an experimental basis, however, and mixed marriages are growing more common.  One interesting  social change that I did discover on a recent return trip was in the greater kindness shown children everywhere. Social workers now work to curb child abuse.  And corporal punishment has been outlawed in the schools.  So maybe there is hope for the future after all.  Brutalized children are natural candidates for war; pampered children are not.  In the end, there is nothing so demilitarizing, so stabilizing, as a society's kindness to children.

Joe Doherty (1997:225), an alleged Irish terrorist, now imprisoned at The Maze in Belfast, concurs:

There is, however, a growing sense of cautious optimism and hope for a better future -- the hope that those enlightened youth marched and sang for in the sixties.  To fulfill the dreams of peace and justice for the next generation we must surely live up to the hopes and songs of that yesteryear.  Then only can my children live in harmony and peace.

          Looking back on this experience today, I can only think, and perhaps say to my mostly disinterested students of social work, "I was in the right place at the right time.  Twice.  And, at the right age."  To me, the meaning in all this translates as: keep fighting and organizing against injustice.  And never mind the immediate consequences.  Moderates will always try to hold you back, to protect you, them, the cause.  Just keep on fighting.  Even a negative press is better than no press at all.  My role I see is to be involved in the initial stages of changes, the publicizing part.  I leave it to the “powers that be” to set up the committees, pass the laws, whatever.  And always in the back of my mind is the lesson of Chapel Hill and Belfast which is this:  that a small group of people, even powerless people, united in the principles of nonviolent protest and utter and absolute determination can have a major impact.  This impact can even escalate far beyond the local level.

How to impart this understanding to my students most of whom share my idealism if not my fervor,  is the question.  How to let them know their own strength individually and collectively?  How do you get students to petition, picket, and organize sit-ins, lie-ins, teach-ins, when they won’t even vote?  How to let them know of the fun they are missing out on?  When their first question in response to a controversial, “firing-up”  lecture is likely to be, “Is this on the exam?”

I may not get to tell them, but the relevance to my students is this: there’s a time to work within the system and a time to work from the outside.  The relevance of the stories from Chapel Hill and Belfast is that if there is to be a social revolution it will likely begin with you, the students, and with the youngest among you.  Here at the university are the resources: the people, facilities, knowledge, media.  And who better has the time, the freedom, and idealism for social action than the young?  And who better could reactivate the burned-out radical professors from the sixties than young protesters of today?

“But what today is worthy of protest?” students might ask.  Here are just a few possibilities:  the denial of gay/lesbian civil rights; the death penalty; the military presence on campus; the use of pesticide sprays on the university lawn; age restrictive drinking laws.  The issue may range from the local to the global, the trivial to the profound.  What is significant is the method used, the means by which the goal is achieved. 

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo, Norway, Martin Luther King (1964:14) summed up the strategy which is also a way of life, a philosophy for all time: Civilization and violence are antithetical concepts.  Negroes of the United States, following the people of India, have demonstrated that nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation... If this is to be achieved man must evolve for all human conflict a method which rejects revenge, aggression and retaliation.  The foundation of such a method is love.


Key Events U.S.                                                                                                                                      

1960s All white police force in most towns

1960  The first sit in, Greensboro, N.C.

1961  70,000+ students participate in demonstrations


1964  Congress passes Civil Rights Act


1965  In Selma, Alabama 200 state troopers beat civil rights marchers


1989 Civil Rights Memorial erected at Montgomery, Alabama bearing the names of 40 men, women, and children killed during the Civil Rights   Movement.


1967 65% of black school children attend segregated schoool.



Key Events Ireeland.                                                                                                                                      


1960s  Royal Ulster Constabulary is 92%  Protestant


1968  Derry police baton-charge aggressive protestors


1968  3,500 take part in a peaceful sit-down demonstration in Derry  


1969-1994  3,100 people killed by the IRA,  Protestant paramilitaries, British  Army and RUC, all due to the  Troubles


1981  10 IRA hunger strikers die in prison


1997   95% of Northern Irish schoolchildren attend segregated schools



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